Thursday, August 20, 2009

artful evenings

hotel Masseran
While some were out gallivanting these recent summer days, others were pursuing the most edifying of divertissements, creating living masterpieces, fusing with the artworks with which they could identify and ephemerally striking a harmony with past masters for the time of an evening. Why it was just last month that the Comte and Comtesse de Beaumont thrilled the beau monde with the refinement of their costumed ball in their hotel particulier, Paris, rue du Bac. Ah, but time has warped ! This was another July and the guests some of the most creative of the high living aesthetes of their day, with that other legendary master of fetes and decoration, Charles de Besteigui, was among them.

Such perfection! The mansion's park was decorated by the Count himself and toward the rear of it curtains of green satin parted upon the presentation of each guest or set of guests representing a painting or sculpture.

The tradition of these living paintings, tableaux vivants was especially popular in the 19th century. Scenes depicted in paintings were meticulously reproduced and intended to awe and transport viewers and subjects alike. In very different contexts, this activity was merely a sneaky way to get around censorship and show a bit of flesh by proclaiming artistic endeavor. The most common use of this form of entertainment today comes at Christmas time in living nativity scenes.

The comte de Beaumont, a wealthy descendant of one of the grandes familles de France, was a painter and designer of stage decors for ballet, costumes and jewelery (sometimes for Chanel) and like Besteigui, was known for his masked balls and his generosity as a patron of modern art.

In May 1924 he inaugurated the "Soireés de Paris" at the Theatre de la Cigale at Montmartre. These artistic evenings were given throughout the year and provided music hall, ballet, poetry and theatre with the participation of Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque or Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud. With his wife Edith, Etienne de Beaumont was at the origin of avant-garde films and ballets and after WW II founded the Association Franco-américaine which financed numerous important exhibits. Paul Morand, Maurice Sachs, Jean Cocteau, Marc Allégret, Bernard Faÿ, Léonide Massine, Lucien Daudet, René Crevel have described the fabulous personality of the comte de Beaumont; he and his home, the hotel Masseran, were models for the principal character and setting of Raymond Radiguet's Le Bal du comte d'Orgel. (source: IMEC)

Imagine a collection of these figurines for your mantel !

These photos by Brassai, pictures of another age, call to mind the Welly Bry party in an Edith Wharton 1905 novel in which Lily Bart poses as Gainsborough's portrait of Mrs Lloyd.

Tableaux vivants depend for their effect not only on the happy disposal of lights and the delusive interposition of layers of gauze, but on a corresponding adjustment of the mental vision. To unfurnished minds they remain, in spite of every enhancement of art, only a superior kind of waxworks; but to the responsive fancy they may give magic glimpses of the boundary world between fact and imagination.

Selden's mind was of this order: he could yield to vision-making influences as completely as a child to the spell of a fairy-tale. Mrs Bry's tableaux wanted none of the qualities which go to the producing of such illusions, and under Morpeth's organizing hand the pictures succeeded each other with the rhythmic march of some splendid frieze, in which the fugitive curves of living flesh and the wandering light of young eyes have been subdued to plastic harmony without losing the charm of life.

Edith Wharton The House of Mirth

photos Brassai for Plaisir de France Aout 1935


  1. A transporting post-resplendent. Traveling agrees with you. The tableaux photographs are captivating to see- especially the faience for my mantel. Oh, and Nefertiti too. A story- fairytale like -and told as such, oh to be in that company for a bit & how I do love dress up. I hope everyone is sunny and well. la

  2. Those are my favorites, too! One can't be blind to the grace of the Gainsborough either. Without even hoping to attain such heights, it does make you want to throw a costume party, doesn't it? (The sun is still shining!)

  3. What a fascinating collection of photographs! I think they probably look a lot easier to accomplish than they really are. The Wharton quote that you gave tends to put it in perspective. I suppose that if the lighting, gesture, costume etc wasn't just right, it wouldn't have been believable or even recognisable and so therefore wouldn't have worked. Fascinating! Thanks!

  4. You're right. I've read that invitations were sent out at least six months ahead for this sort of party. It took a lot of commitment from everyone concerned.